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The Northern Origins of Jim Crow

The late Paul Harvey famously said: “Now, for the rest of the story.” “Jim Crow” is a classic example of an incomplete story. Establishment media incessantly blames the South for everything considered “historically bad.” Some modern TV shows and movies will make a sane person want to heave. In reality, when all racial and ethnic groups were in close proximity, segregation was essentially a non-issue in the Old South. Segregation was actually born in the North. Jack Trotter contends that everyone in Southern households typically “considered themselves a part of an extended family…sharing both familial affection and the labor which was essential to flourishing.” Of course, modern know nothings would disagree.

After the South failed to gain its independence, the occupation forces initiated many changes. They intentionally drove wedges within Southern society—often for their own ill-gotten gains. Conversely, most places in the North had distinct factions and “ethnic neighborhoods” virtually from day one.

Corporate media references the “Jim Crow South” but conveniently fails to mention the root of this verbiage. The original “Jim Crow,” Thomas Dartmouth Rice, was a White man born in Manhattan, New York, in 1808. Trained as a woodcarver, Rice became an entertainer, specializing in “blackface.” Describing himself as the “Original Jim Crow,” Rice “performed in a short-waisted blue coat, threadbare gold pants and mismatched shoes, singing, ‘Eb’ry time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.’” Newspaper editors and letter writers picked up the phrase, routinely accusing politicians of “jumping Jim Crow” for giving up a principle too easily or abandoning their party’s cause.” Rice was extremely popular in the North. New York City was, “one of many of places in the North where working-class whites could see blackface minstrelsy, which was quickly becoming a dominant form of theater and a leading source for popular music in the United States.” (Nat Geo.) Rice’s popularity took him all the way to England. Concurrently, “Jim Crow” seeped into the American vernacular.

Rice was very popular in Massachusetts, with a Black population of perhaps one percent. In that State, we can see classic examples of Jim Crow. For example, in the summer of 1838 the Eastern Rail Road began operations. A large number of individuals boarded three trains in Boston and journeyed 13½ miles to Salem. At day’s end, Eastern’s President, George Peabody, lauded the railroad as a leader in social change, equal rights, and unification. “The next day, though, when Peabody’s railroad officially threw open its doors to the paying public, the ‘standard of Equal Rights’ was nowhere in sight. Instead, the Eastern’s white and black passengers found separate cars awaiting them.” The “Jim Crow Car” was born in the railroad industry.

In 1841, Black abolitionist David Ruggles arrived in Massachusetts for strategic sessions. “Ruggles boarded the steamboat Telegraph in New Bedford’s harbor, bound for Nantucket and a meeting of abolitionists there.” Ruggles discovered there were two fares: The $2.00 ticket allowed passengers to roam the ship whereas the $1.50 ticket confined passengers to the “cheap seats on the forward deck.” Ruggles paid the higher fare but the captain rejected it. This led to a fight in which Ruggles lost his hat and relevant papers and he never made it to Nantucket for the meeting.

Weeks later, also on the New Bedford & Taunton railway’s service to Boston, Ruggles again bought the $2.00 ticket and entered the Whites-only car. The New Bedford & Taunton was one of three Massachusetts railroads that used the system of separate cars. The conductor summoned reinforcements to eject Ruggles, who again fought to defend himself. His baggage went on to Boston but Ruggles went to New Bedford to file a formal assault claim against the railroad.

“At a two-day trial before New Bedford police judge Henry H. Crapo, the railroad president testified that the company’s rule benefited everyone because it “separated the drunken, dirty, ragged and colored people from the others.” Crapo contended, “The railroad was entitled,…to make and enforce whatever rules it deemed necessary…The cars are the property of the stockholders, and as such are private property.” Ruggles called the trial “the greatest farce I ever witnessed.”

Another incident involved Frederick Douglas and a White abolitionist named John Collins as they sought to travel together on the Eastern Railroad. Again, a scuffle and ejection ensued, with Douglas proclaiming, “In dragging me out, on this occasion, it must have cost the company twenty-five or thirty dollars, for I tore up seats and all.” At the next stop, his white companions were forced to leave the train.

Examples of Northern racial animus typically fall outside the approved narrative. After The War to Prevent Southern Independence, racial friction worsened in the South. Much of the animosity arose from the backlash created by outsiders interfering where they had no business.

Sources: “The Jim Crow Car,” by Steve Luxenburg, from The Washington Post at: ; “The Strange Career of Segregation,” by Jack Trotter, from the Abbeville Blog, at:; and “Who was Jim Crow,” from National Geographic at: Quotes other than noted as National Geographic and Jack Trotter came from Luxenburg’s article.


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